The 1961 Season, Part 4

“Ain’t That a Kick! The Wild & Wooly Regular Season”

By ED WETTERMAN

PREVIOUSLY – The 1961 Season, Part 1

PREVIOUSLY – The 1961 Season, Part 2

PREVIOUSLY – The 1961 Season, Part 3

The 1961 season opened September 9 with the defending AFL Champion Oilers taking on the Oakland Raiders in Houston’s Jeppesen Stadium just two days before Hurricane Carla would ravage the Gulf Coast. 

The Oilers dominated looking every bit the part of champions from the very start. 

Charlie Tolar opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 27-yard run. 

Then the Oilers caught fire with 21 second-quarter points. 

George Blanda hit Charlie Hennigan for a 78-yard touchdown, then followed up with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Bill Groman

Dave Smith added a two-yard touchdown plunge to make the score 28-0 at halftime.  

The second half was more of the same with Blanda throwing a 20-yard touchdown to Groman, then kicking 27- and 14-yard field goals.

Smith added another two-yard touchdown run before a 28-yard pass from second-string quarterback Jacky Lee to Smith ended the romp at 55-0. 

While everyone else in Houston could envision another championship, Oilers Head Coach Lou Rymkus told his squad that it was one of the worst performances he had ever seen. 

In his book, Oiler Blues, John Pirkle related that Rymkus constantly spoke of how things were done when he was with the Cleveland Browns organization, and that Oilers “players felt they were never good enough in his eyes. It took its toll. Lou began to lose some players.”

Be it players, games, or both, lose would indeed become the operative word in the Oiler dressing room over the next few weeks. 

After a bye week, Houston traveled to play Sid Gillman’s 2-0 San Diego Chargers on September 24. 

The Chargers scored first with a 44-yard field goal, and the Oilers came back to tie with a 28-yard boot by Blanda to end the first quarter. 

The second quarter was all Chargers with Dave Kocourek catching a seven-yard touchdown from Jack Kemp, Paul Lowe scoring on a two-yard rush, then Charlie McNeil intercepting an errant Blanda pass for a pick-six.

Before the halftime horn sounded at Balboa Stadium, Kemp added a 37-yard touchdown pass to Luther Hayes, and the Oilers trudged to the locker room down 31-3. 

In the second half, Lee replaced Blanda at quarterback and threw touchdown strikes to Ken Hall (13 yards), John White (40 yards), and Tolar (three yards). 

Meanwhile, the previously porus Houston defense allowed San Diego just a third-quarter field goal, but the damage had been done, and the Oilers fell to the Chargers 34-24 and to 1-1 on the season. 

Houston then traveled to Dallas’ Cotton Bowl on October 1 to play the 1-1 Dallas Texans and lost 26-21 as the defense couldn’t stop Jack Spikes, who racked up three rushing touchdowns and 146 yards on the day. 

Billy Cannon hauled in a 70-yard touchdown pass to give the Oilers a quick 7-0 advantage, but for the second straight week, the Oilers were mired in a big hole at the half after Spikes had scored two of his three TDs, and Abner Haynes added another touchdown rush for 24 yards. 

In the fourth quarter, Spikes extended the Texans’ edge to 26-7, and Dallas held off Houston, despite two touchdown receptions by Groman and Hennigan. 

Blanda was 15-for-36 for 275 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Cannon had tried to throw the ball on a trick play and was also intercepted. 

Widespread grumbling ensued, and some reporters wanted Rymkus to start Lee over Blanda.

Standing 1-2, Houston limped home on October 8, hoping to right the ship against the 1-3 Buffalo Bills. ‘

In an ugly contest, the Oilers were flat in both their passing and running games. Lee got the starting nod at quarterback over Blanda and went 10-for-26 for 196 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Cannon rushed eight times for just 19 yards, and Tolar rushed 11 times for just 23 yards.

After the Bills went up 7-0 in the second quarter, Groman hauled in a 54-yard touchdown pass from Lee. 

Blanda gave the Oilers a 10-7 halftime edge with a 14-yard field goal, and Houston scored a safety on a blocked punt by Dennit Morris that went out of the end zone to pad the lead to 12-7.  

However, the Bills cashed in two fourth-quarter touchdowns to hand Houston more heartbreak with a 21-12 loss, dismissing the thoughts of a repeat championship from the minds of most. 

The 1-3 Oilers then traveled to Boston to face the Patriots in a must-win game they really needed to win on Friday the 13th of October. 

Houston sportswriter Jack Gallagher, who had already been vicious in his attacks on the Oilers and the AFL, was now calling for Rymkus to be fired and for Lee to be the new starting quarterback. 

Knowing his job was on the line, Rymkus again benched Blanda for Lee. 

The Patriots opened the scoring at Boston University Field on a one-yard run by quarterback Babe Parilli

Then Lee tossed a pair of touchdowns, the first to Groman for 44 yards, and the second to Hennigan for 48 yards. 

The Patriots managed a field goal before the half to trim the Oilers’ lead to 14-10 before Larry Garron ran the second-half kickoff 89 yards for a score to put Boston ahead 17-14. 

The Oilers answered with a two-yard touchdown run by Tolar, but the Patriots bounced right back and scored another rushing touchdown to take a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter. 

The see-saw game continued as Cannon rushed for a two-yard touchdown to vault the Oilers back into the lead at 28-24.

However, Patriots quarterback Butch Songin promptly marched his team down the field and threw a three-yard touchdown pass to Gino Cappelletti, giving the Patriots a 31-28 lead with just 50 seconds left. 

The Oilers managed a last-ditch drive to the Boston 25 yard line. 

With only five seconds left, Blanda was sent out to attempt a 25-yard field goal to tie the game. 

Cannon, who had enough of Rymkus, reportedly told Blanda in the huddle, “Miss it, George! Teach that son-of-a-bitch a lesson he’ll never forget.”  

But Blanda was too much of a competitor, and his instincts in this instance would prove crucial for the Oilers at the end of the season. 

He nailed the kick, and the game ended in a 31-31 tie, but Cannon still got his wish, because it wouldn’t be enough to save Rymkus’ job.

In Blanda, Alive and Kicking (1972), author Wells Twombly wrote, “[Bud] Adams is getting ready to do something that he will repeat over and over again through the years: deal from panic, curious behavior for a millionaire.”

The next day, Adams fired Rymkus, the defending championship coach and the 1960 AFL Coach of the Year. 

Adams promptly hired former Oilers assistant Wally Lemm to be the head coach. Lemm, who’d resigned after the 1960 season to sell sporting goods in his home state of Illinois, brought back Julian Spence, whom Rymkus had cut in the preseason and added several linebacker blitzes to the defensive scheme. 

On offense, Lemm installed the double– and triple-wing formations like the ones he had learned under Pop Ivy with the Chicago Cardinals. 

Lemm’s hiring and re-scheming was about to make Adams look like a genius. 

The next game on October 22 was a rematch against the Dallas Texans in Houston.

Because of his proficiency the previous week against the Patriots, Lee got the starting nod at quarterback, and the rest of the roster responded to the coaching change. 

Although the Texans scored first on a 42-yard pass from Cotton Davidson to Chris Burford, the Oilers kicked into high gear when Lemm yanked Lee and inserted Blanda in the second quarter.

With the Blanda at the helm, Oilers would not lose another game that season. 

Blanda came out with guns ablaze, connecting with Hennigan on a 66-yard bomb for a touchdown, then Cannon for an 18-yard touchdown, then Groman for another 18-yard touchdown. 

Blanda then added a 53-yard field goal in the third, making the score 31-7. 

Lee was reinserted for some mop-up work in the fourth quarter and ended the day 6-for-11 with 109 yards and one touchdown in the fourth quarter on an 80-yard bomb to Groman. 

Blanda threw for 215 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. The starting role was his once more.

The Oilers then went on a rampage, defeating the Bills 28-16, the Denver Broncos 55-14, the Patriots 27-15, the Titans of New York 49-13, the Broncos 45-14, the Chargers 33-13, the Titans 48-21, and finishing the regular season by clobbering the Raiders 47-16 to win the AFL Eastern Division for the second consecutive time and earn a berth in the second AFL Championship game against the Western Division champion Chargers with a record of 10-3-1.

As fate would have it, the Oilers finished the regular season just one game better than Boston, which posted a 9-4-1 mark. 

Parachuting into the mess left by Rymkus, Lemm took a last-place Oiler team, won nine games in a row to win the Eastern Division, and earned AFL Coach of the Year accolades.

The 1961 Oilers would later be named as No. 100 on the NFL’s 100 Greatest Teams of all-time.

Ironically, the Blanda kick that tied the first game against the Patriots is what gave Houston the edge in the Eastern Division that won them the divisional crown. 

Had Blanda listened to Cannon that day, the Oilers would not have played in the championship game.

Although he’d clearly proven himself to be the real deal, the next game would be one of the hardest of Blanda’s career.

UP NEXT – The 1961 Season, Part 5: The Championship Game

Ed Wetterman is a native Houstonian and lifelong Oiler fan/historian. He is a teacher, genealogist, game creator, and writer who lived and died on Sundays with the Oilers. Ed has created many games such as “East Texas University: Degrees of Horror” and written short stories such as “HellFighter,” published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group. Football has always been one of his greatest passions. He experienced the highs and the lows of being an Oiler fan, and like many others, he was crushed when the Oilers left Houston. Writing for Miss Ya Blue! gives him an outlet for his Columbia Blue love.

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